Vote would bring more cops, firefighters - The Explorer: Pima Pinal

Vote would bring more cops, firefighters

Opponents say plan has no funding, would cause countywide property tax hikes

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Posted: Tuesday, September 29, 2009 11:00 pm | Updated: 1:34 pm, Mon Apr 18, 2011.

Reporter Patrick McNamara spent a night with the Tucson Police Department. Excerpts of what he saw are interspersed throughout this story.  – Ed.

A proposal to increase the number of police on the streets and improve emergency response times in Tucson has raised concerns beyond the city limits.

Proposition 200, on Tucson ballots in November, would mandate police staffing levels at 2.4 officers per 1,000 residents. The initiative also would strengthen standards for fire and rescue service response times.

Supporters of the proposal say crime in Tucson demands that more officers be put on the streets. The move, they say, would benefit public safety throughout the region, regardless of the jurisdiction.

"Unfortunately, crime radiates out from Tucson," said Colin Zimmerman, director of public affairs for the Tucson Association of Realtors and one of the masterminds of Proposition 200.

Tucson currently has about 1.9 officers per 1,000 residents.

The problem with the proposal, according to some opponents, is that the authors didn't include a way to pay for the initiative.

"Where is the funding?" said Mary Schuh, with the Pima Association of Taxpayers.

To meet the revised police ratio, the city would need to hire about 350 new officers over five years, with estimated recurring annual costs of $34 million.

The initiative has Pima County officials concerned that costs would ripple beyond Tucson city limits and put a strain on county finances.

"Whoever crafted it forgot that the county handles the criminal justice system," said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

County officials estimate that the increase of police on Tucson streets would initiate thousands of more arrests and increase Tucson-related criminal prosecutions by as much as 30 percent.

According to memos from the Pima County Attorney's Office, Tucson accounted for 53 percent of the county's adult felony caseload — a total of 4,288 cases in 2008.

Sept. 19, 8 p.m.

"Did you hear him whistle?" Tucson police Lt. Dan Lewis said as his squad car rolled southbound on Columbus Boulevard approaching Pima Street.

Lewis made a quick left into the parking lot of a Circle K convenience store. Circling around a bank of gas pumps, he stopped the car in front of the store where a man was sitting next to the ice machines.

The whistle could have been a warning to others nearby that police are in the area, Lewis explained. Or it could have been nothing.

Lewis, a force commander and an 18-year veteran of the Tucson Police Department, decided it was the latter.

More jail space needed

With more arrests come more inmates in the Pima County Adult Detention Center, the county-run jail that serves much of Southern Arizona.

On any given day, as many as 2,000 inmates are held in the jail on Tucson's west side. Most of those inmates sit awaiting trial, while others are serving out the remainder of their sentences.

"It's not unusual for us to house a first-degree murderer for two to three years," said Capt. Greg Gearhart, operations manager at the county jail.

Inmates are housed in 25 units of varying capacity. In addition, the jail has some inmates segregated from the general population for their safety, or the safety of other inmates.

Logistics of jail operations are staggering. The facility serves some 6,000 meals every day of the year — more than 2.1 million per year.

Gearhart worries that an anticipated influx of inmates from Tucson, if Proposition 200 passes, would fill the jail beyond capacity.

"We're all for putting extra cops on the street," Gearhart said.

The problem, he said, is timing. Even if the Tucson initiative forces the county to expand the jail, he estimates it could be as long as seven years before the building wraps up and enough workers could be hired and trained to man the facility.

"We're looking at a long time down the road before we have the additional capacity," Gearhart said.

Sept. 19, 8:20 p.m.

A call comes over the dispatch that an armed robbery has just occurred at the Family Dollar Store near 22nd Street and Columbus Boulevard.

The dispatcher said a man described as five feet, six inches tall, with a heavy build and a goatee, robbed the discount store at knifepoint.

He fled on foot, possibly into a nearby neighborhood.

Police formed a perimeter around the neighborhood, parking their cars at all the entry points into the area. Other officers crisscrossed the neighborhood streets in their cars, looking for anyone who matches the description, while a helicopter circled overhead.

In the old days, Lewis explained, police were more likely to gather at the crime scene and work outward, giving a robber a better opportunity to elude them.

"You see how quick it got set up?" Lewis said.

By securing the edges of the neighborhood, police can lock a suspect into an area. The flashing red and blue lights and blinding door-mounted spotlights warn the suspect that the police are on the prowl. That's when the dogs were called in.

K-9 units took to the streets and alleyways as more details come in over the radio and on-board computer. The suspect wore a blue jersey with the number 77 on it. He also admonished the store clerk "don't mess with me."

The robber made off with an undetermined amount of cash, which he placed in a beige-colored bag adorned with smiley faces.

The searched continued for nearly an hour before it was called off.

If the suspect came into the neighborhood at all, Lewis explained, he easily could have slipped into the house of an accomplice or his own.

More likely, Lewis speculated, he ran from the store directly to an awaiting vehicle and fled the area before police were even called.

A regional problem

"Crime does not stop at a geographic boundary," Zimmerman said.

He said the organizers of the initiative conducted exhaustive research in creating the proposition, including polling more than 3,200 Tucsonans to get a sense of what issues people were most concerned with.

Education and public safety topped the list for almost everyone, he said.

"I maintain that the city of Tucson is not a safe place," Zimmerman said.

He cited the record-setting 68 homicides in Tucson in 2008. Other crimes also have been on the rise in Tucson.

In 2008, Tucson police investigated more than 67,000 Part II crimes, a category that includes forgery, fraud, embezzlement, criminal damage, weapons offenses, prostitution, sex offenses, child molesting, narcotics, gambling, DUI, and numerous other offenses.

In other categories, the crime statistics remain less clear.

In 2005, Tucson police began classifying burglaries in some instances as criminal trespassing. Figures showed a subsequent drop in property crimes by as much as a third as a result.

The FBI took note of the change, marking the category in its annual Uniform Crime Report as an area in which the city did not follow reporting guidelines set by the bureau.

Overall, however, violent crime in Tucson has declined, down to 757 incidents per 100,000 in 2008. There were more than 1,200 incidents per 100,000 residents in 1995.

"If we can arrest 30 percent more people, that's a good thing," Zimmerman said.

He contends those county officials and other opponents of the initiative citing the costs aren't being up front about the true price tag.

"They don't like the idea of Proposition 200 and are trying to pile on as much a possible," Zimmerman said.

He estimates the annual cost of the new officers at about $10 million, less than 2 percent of the city's budget. The money could easily come out of Tucson's general fund, he said.

Further, he points out that the county has discussed expanding the jail since 2005.

Voters passed a bond package in 2008 that included a 250-bed expansion of the jail. That proposal has since been put on hold.

"It's really going to be an advantage to the entire area," Zimmerman said of the possible stepping up of crime fighting in Tucson.

Sept. 19, 11 p.m.

Police receive a call about a fight at a wedding party in the ballroom of the Arizona Hotel downtown.

Family members tell Lewis and a group of officers that a man confronted some of them claiming that he was the hotel's security guard. Family members said he wore no clothing items that would identify him as a security guard.

A groomsman told Lewis that the man became belligerent and threatening. They also said that he was drinking a beer at the time.

When police questioned the employee, he denied that he was drinking and lamented that the hotel didn't hire armed security guards.

He also told police that members of the wedding party, including the bridegroom, tried to attack him.

"I had 50 people trying to punch me," the employee said.

Police ask him if was injured, to which he said he dodged their blows.

"I'm a boxer, a professional boxer in my personal life," the man said.

Back out in the ballroom, family members told police and the hotel manager that the employee also had brought some friends with him who were drinking at the wedding.

Police tell the manager to shut down the wedding to prevent further incidents.

Lewis decided that there wasn't cause to arrest members of the wedding party or the employee, who police believed had been drinking, because the incident was a civil matter between the hotel and the bride's family.

'Anti-regionalism' at play

"When you mandate governmental performance by initiative, it potentially causes disaster," Huckelberry said.

For the county administrator, that mandate in the city of Tucson would send costs rippling through the region.

"If you add up all the costs, it's about $28 million per year in additional operating expenditures," Huckelberry said.

In addition, Huckelberry said passage of the initiative would hasten the need to construct or expand the jail. That would cost as much as $67 million.

Huckelberry said passage of the proposal would cause the county to increase its primary property tax by 8 to 9 percent.

"The initiative is really anti-regionalism," the county administrator said.

In a June 26 memo to the Tucson City Council, Assistant City Manager Richard Miranda tentatively estimated the total cost of the proposition would top $157 million over five years.

Miranda also pointed out the limited ability for the city to pay for the proposal through higher sales and property taxes. The city charter mandates that the combined primary and secondary property tax rates not exceed $1.75 per $100 of assessed value. The current combined rate is $0.93.

Miranda said voters in a separate initiative would have to approve higher tax rates to bridge the anticipated gap.

he city charter similarly allows for no more than a 2 percent local sales tax, a rate the city has already reached.

The only funding options that remain, in lieu of voter-approved taxes, would be the elimination of other city services.

Miranda, by way of comparison, said the city would have to lay off about 343 employees to save about $23 million annually.

Another option would have the city cut spending in all non-public safety related departments by more than 13 percent.

Schuh, with the Pima Association of Taxpayers, said the cost estimates only tell part of the story.

"They're going to have to build the stations, too," Schuh said. The price tag, she said, "will crush people."

Sept. 20, 2:10 a.m.

Customers of a bar near Country Club Road and Aviation Highway reported someone shooting a gun in the parking lot.

A police helicopter followed one vehicle to a house near Tucson Boulevard and 22nd Street that matched descriptions given by eyewitnesses. The helicopter followed a second vehicle, a pickup with two men sitting in the truck bed, leaving the house.

Lights flashing, Lewis pulls his patrol car behind the truck. With his gun drawn, Lewis approaches the truck and orders the men to keep their hands up.

A pair of officers rushed in, guns also drawn, to search the men. With no weapons found, police have the other occupants of the truck, four women, exit.

The group confirms that they were at the bar when the gunshots were heard. They denied any involvement.

Police return to the house where the vehicle had gone. Through the window, police see an empty gun holster and ammunition magazine. They knock on the front gate, but the residents don't respond. They decide to scale the wall that surrounds the front yard and knock at the door.

About 10 officers standby, guns at the ready, as a few others approach the front door.

Police question the resident, who tells them she wasn't at the bar, didn't shoot a gun and, further, doesn't have to talk with them.

Eyewitnesses at the bar later tell police that they could identify the man who fired the shots. One of the witnesses identifies a man in the back of the truck as the shooter. Police arrest the man.

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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